This morning, I noticed a story in my newsfeed about a woman with an inoperable brain tumor. The diagnosis meant the young woman would certainly die after first losing control of her body as well as her mind. Such a death would undoubtedly be difficult for the woman as well as her loved ones. This story wasn’t about Brittany Maynard, however, but Lauren Hill, a 19-year-old college student at Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati. Lauren also happens to be the basketball player who scored the first basket of the NCAA season.
The obvious similarities between Brittany Maynard and Lauren Hill are striking. Both were young women diagnosed with terminal brain tumors. Both were given the similar prospect of a difficult, impending death. But the similarities end there. Brittany is now famous for choosing to end her own life instead of suffering through her last months. Lauren chose instead to play basketball.
Lauren had long dreamed of playing college basketball. But, just after signing to play for Mount Saint Joseph, her dream was shattered when she was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a kind of deadly brain tumor. Doctors predict Lauren could die any day. Although basketball is certainly not her greatest concern at this point, never getting to play was was definitely a disappointment. Then the NCAA allowed Mount Saint Joseph to move their first game up a few weeks in hopes Lauren would still be able to play. So, when Lauren made the first shot of the game, she also scored the first points of the NCAA basketball season. Lauren is raising money for research for her disease in hopes of helping others who may be diagnosed in the future.
Lauren Hill and Brittany Maynard faced similar, terrible situations yet they responded in completely opposite ways. Brittany chose to advocate for the legality of suicide before committing suicide herself. Lauren chose to raise money to help people with her illness while also continuing to live her life to the fullest. I make this comparison not to criticize Brittany but rather to draw attention to this issue and the absurd way our society now understands freedom and dignity.
Firstly (and briefly), suicide is never, ever truly dignified. Suicide can be clean, serious, austere, but never dignified. Because dignity is about honor, respect, and what is proper to a human being. This means that our dignity is inseparably bound to our creation in the image and likeness of God and our ability to choose to present that image in our lives. In our society, we often confuse dignity with stateliness and pleasure. This is why it’s easy to believe suicide is somehow dignified while suffering and an inelegant death are not. Suicide always denies the value of human life. It denies that every human being was made with and for a purpose. Suicide denies hope both for ourselves and for others.
Secondly, to understand suicide correctly, we must also understand freedom correctly. Freedom is not simply an infinite set of choices. Brittany Maynard said about her suicide, “The freedom is in the choice.” She was absolutely, disastrously wrong. Brittany confused “freedom” for “free will.” Free will is an integral part of freedom but it is not the only part. Because of free will, we always have a choice. Sometimes, legal consequences keep us from choosing the wrong thing. Sometimes, fear of other consequences cause us to choose the right thing. Risks, rewards, habit; all of these things go into our choices. But freedom does not lie in the fact that these choices exist. Instead, our freedom takes place when we are able to discern what is good and we choose the good because we love it. Most people have at least some sense of this. For instance, most of us would not look at a man in adultery and say, “Freedom is in his choice to cheat on his wife.” We understand that freedom is not the man who chooses to cheat on his wife because he is legally free to do so. Nor is it the man who remains faithful only because of his fear of damaging a prenuptial agreement. Freedom is the man who chooses, despite being presented with opportunities to do otherwise, to love only his wife because it is good and right.
But what about a terminally ill person? What about pain and suffering? What about the “indignity” of losing control of one’s body? What could dignity and freedom look like for a person who is doomed to suffer and die? In these situations, principles – no matter how solid – often go unheard. So it is wonderful to have a young woman living out these principles. The president of The Cure Starts Now, the charity for which Lauren is raising money, said of Lauren, “She wanted to fight, she wanted to be fearless, she wanted to win the battle.” How can she “win”? She’s already suffering. And no matter how hard she fights, she’s going to die any day now. Well, she can win because our lives are not the sum of our pleasures and pains. Our lives aren’t even our own. Lauren is choosing to do great things, live well, and work for others. This is dignity. This is freedom.